Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know
by E.D. Hirsch
"I have no idea what you are saying." This is the reaction which most American students will have as they interact with others in the present age. Children are missing the foundational knowledge necessary in order to properly interpret today's society. They are not culturally literate. Hirsch, in his book Cultural Literacy, examines the problem, the causes, and a possible solution.
The author defines culturally literacy as possessing "the basic information need to thrive in the modern world" (xiii). It is a growing base of facts which is common to the culture. If order for a person to be culturally literate they must understand references from nearly all general topics such as history, science, technology, literature, and religion.
Hirsch is a reaction against Dewey and Rousseau who believe that if children are left to develop naturally, they will grow into well rounded individuals. Every child has within them what is necessary to produce a well rounded individual is the humanistic belief which fueled the educational system of America in the last century. Their idea for a "natural development" involved a diminishing stress on subjects such as Latin and Greek. These were replaced with "content-neutral curricula" (xv) which allowed the child to learn as he went at his own pace. He was not forced into a mold.
Hirsch believes that it is "only by piling up specific, communally shared information [that children can] learn to participate in complex cooperative activities with other members of their community" (xv). In other words, if a child does not have the same grid to interpret what others are saying, a grid which is common to other Americans, they cannot understand what is going on. This grid is also essential to the communication with others. The grid which allows communication is constructed through a conglomeration of general and specific facts which are common to the average American.
Changes need to made in order to bring others to the place of cultural literacy. These changes need to specifically take place at the educational level. If this change does not take place, this country is doomed to the same fate as those others who do not have a unified language and culture. Those countries which lack a culturally literate society fail at their attempts in global pursuits. "Where communications fail, so do the undertakings. (That is the moral of the story of the Tower of Babel)" (2). The author uses China as an example, which may not be the best example for the twenty-first century.
The proposed changes in order to bring others to a culturally literate state involve an education which is both broad and specific. American children need to be educated broadly on a variety of subjects so they may communicate with others about Shakespeare, the Civil War, Homer and pizza. They need to have a general knowledge which allows them to know that a reference to a "Judas" is not normally made in a positive light. They also need specific knowledge in other areas. If all they have is a general knowledge in every area they will be shallow, and ignorant of it. This specific knowledge comes through a greater interaction in the chosen areas.
Hirsch is right on target in certain areas. Without the proper grid one cannot understand anything. Studies presented by the author showed that without sufficient background information one could not understand a simple paragraph. The specifics could be understood, the words and grammar, but they had nothing with which to place it in the larger scheme of things. What was needed was a common understanding which should be expected of the average American.
This grid, according to the author, comes through a knowledge of certain facts. He is correct in stressing that the educational system of today needs to reject the idea that every child should be encouraged to retain their individuality and culture to the detriment of others. It is correct that they should not reject their own culture and history, but they also must learn others. They must be taught a unified body of understanding if they are ever to communicate with others.
Hirsch raises the curtain on several important issues which educators of the twentieth century must understand. A purely humanistic approach to education will only leave the student farther behind in their development and ability to communicate with others. Unless a child learns to be culturally literate he will fail in his endeavors to understand others. This will ultimately result in a nation with limited influence and ability on the world scene.
If this review was helpful, let me know here